More on Plagiarism and Integrity in Publishing: Plagiarism Accusations Against Pushcart Nominated Poet

More on Plagiarism and Integrity in Publishing: Plagiarism Accusations Against Pushcart Nominated Poet

When I think about the latest plagiarism scandal in publishing, I wish for two things. One: I wish plagiarism was not such a common occurrence in the industry. Two: I wish more stories of plagiarism were actually exposed in a way that gets people talking about Intellectual Property Rights.

Ailey O’Toole, a young poet nominated for a Pushcart Prize, is accused of plagiarizing three other poets’ works in her nominated collection. A Pushcart Prize is a pretty big deal, as the award is intended to recognize work published by small presses and can be a stepping stone to a more lucrative publishing deal with a larger publisher for young authors. This is especially significant in poetry, a genre with considerably fewer opportunities for writers in mainstream commercial publishing.

Emily Alford at Jezebel broke the story on Saturday and has all the details.

Plagiarism feels like one of those things that is easy to spot. We all learn what it is in school at this point. You cannot copy someone else’s work and present it as your own. But that copying isn’t as specific as word-for-word and that’s where plagiarism gets confusing for many young people.

What O’Toole is accused of is paraphrasing other poets’ phrases and presenting them as her own ideas. The image that broke the story comes from poet Rachel McKibbens in her collection blud. This is a case that seems more fit for an episode of Scooby Doo than real life as O’Toole e-mailed McKibbens to admit that she was inspired by the poem in blud and wanted to put the poems in conversation with each other. O’Toole would admit to taking and paraphrasing McKibbens’ imagery in an e-mail but not actually credit McKibbens’ poem in her own collection.


O’Toole is also accused of copying directing from two other poets, Hieu Minh Nguyen and Wanda Deglane. Deglane was actually contacted by O’Toole’s publisher Rhythm and Bones Lit to let her know what happened, though she had previously confronted O’Toole directly for copying her work through a manuscript she gave O’Toole to read.

Per Emily Alford’s story at Jezebel, O’Toole’s work is being dropped by a number of publishers, including her upcoming collection with Rhythm and Bones Lit. We don’t know what the Pushcart Prize is going to do with O’Toole’s nomination. The story broke over the weekend and they haven’t made a statement yet. I will update this post when they do.

There’s a good bit to unpack here. First, what we’re dealing with here is paraphrasing text without attributing the source. O’Toole swapped out a few keywords for synonyms. She also changed where the line breaks in her poem are, altering the rhythm. Just because O’Toole did not copy McKibbens word for word does not mean this isn’t plagiarism; she copied McKibbens’ ideas, imagery, and form with superficial alterations to the literal text.

Second, O’Toole mentioned to McKibbens that she hoped their work could be viewed in conversation with each other. That’s great. There’s a long literary history of poets responding to each other’s work with new poems. The keyword there is new. The driving force of a response poem is a new poem commenting on the thesis, theme, imagery, or ideas of another poet’s work. They also credit the original author and work, traditionally in the title though more modern texts might include the reference as a footnote. O’Toole did not credit McKibbens, Nguyen, or Deglane in her poems, leaving no room for doubt that she actually plagiarized the work.

Third, knowing all of this about plagiarism, it’s easy to imagine how common it is in modern publishing. The internet has led to a revolution in self-publishing, as anyone with an internet connection can publish their work online. I’m doing it right now. So is every other person with a website featuring a blog or writing. The exchange of information and chance to discover and share your voice online is wonderful; the constant effort to stop people from stealing your work because people don’t care that copyright and IPR laws still apply for online publishing is troubling. Even if it’s accidental and you forget a citation, paraphrasing someone’s words or ideas without attribution is still plagiarism.

My editorial policy is always clear attribution of ideas, with either inline or footnote text clearly stating where the idea for a story came from if it did not originate in my own brain. I saw this story about plagiarism at Jezebel and decided I wanted to comment on it with my own perspective on IPR and plagiarism in the digital age. I also attributed the story to the source and made it a point to use the specifics of this story to create a larger piece about IPR. If I did this without recognizing Emily Alford’s original story at Jezebel, I would be plagiarizing her reporting on the story. All too often, digital publishers and content creators do not credit each other’s work, creating a playground for people who would take advantage of other’s work and present it as their own. Shoot, it hasn’t even been four months since I wrote about online plagiarism in response to Filip Miucin’s career of plagiarizing other people’s game reviews for his videos and here we are again.

What is the lesson in this? Simply put, this story is a refresher course on plagiarism. If you use someone else’s words or ideas without crediting them, even if it’s not a direct word for word copy, you’re plagiarizing. Full stop. It doesn’t matter if you found it online or the work is in public domain. It doesn’t matter if you intended to steal the idea or not. If you use someone else’s words or ideas and do not credit them, you are misrepresenting those words/ideas as your own and are plagiarizing. If you don’t want to be a plagiarist, don’t copy other people’s work without attribution. It really is that easy.

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